Gov. Laura Kelly said during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event that she was inspired by the late civil rights leader’s persistence in the face of political opposition to reform and related that to her struggle to convince the Kansas Legislature to approve expansion of eligibility for Medicaid. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
OVERLAND PARK — Three of Kansas’ most influential political leaders joined together on a national holiday to honor the lasting influence of Black clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. more than two generations after he was fatally shot on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
Gov. Laura Kelly, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall shared a microphone Monday night while examining ways they had been guided by King’s appeals to end racial discrimination, to embrace civil rights for all, to pursue nonviolent struggle and to remain faithful to God.
Kelly told participants at the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy and Scholarship Awards Dinner organized by NAACP supporters in Overland Park, Olathe and Leawood that King’s message of desegregation held wide appeal in the 1960s. King’s decision to broaden his agenda to include wage inequality, housing discrimination and the Vietnam War, however, led to a 1966 poll showing two-thirds of Americans developed an unfavorable opinion of King.
The governor said King was convinced justice for Black people couldn’t be achieved unless Americans appreciated the full horror of institutional racism.
“That meant, whether we liked it or not, Americans had to pull back the curtain and confront a wider, more complicated racism that existed,” Kelly said. “Fifty years later, it often feels like we’re still fighting the same fights as Dr. King.”
In the Kansas Capitol, a conservative political crusade is being fought to block meaningful exploration in school classrooms of racism and related issues of systemic inequality. Their ire is aimed at “critical race theory,” an academic concept not taught in the state’s K-12 schools, that holds racism wasn’t exclusively the result of individual prejudice, but also a force embedded in policy and law.
In the last couple years, the original meaning of critical race theory has been distorted to encompass a lengthy list of objections about the way children were to be educated. It’s sparked legislation to ban discussion of topics that allegedly pit whites against Blacks.
“We have made progress,” Kelly said, “but issues such as pay equity, maternal mortality, voting rights and an imbalanced criminal justice system continue to disproportionately affect Black Americans. Just as there is political opposition to having these necessary conversations and making these changes, we today have politicians who love to quote Dr. King, but who work against making the systemic changes he died fighting for.”
She said the Kansas Legislature stood on the wrong side of history by overriding her veto of two election and voting rights bills in 2021 that she considered “anti-democratic” and by annually resisting proposals to expand eligibility for Medicaid to the working poor. She quoted King, who said during 1966 in Chicago: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”
“Expansion (of Medicaid) would help many Black Kansans gain access to affordable health care, but each year the Legislature has blocked our efforts despite knowing the difference it would make in the lives of Kansans, particularly for mothers and their children. There are still forces at work impeding our progress.”
‘Apostle of nonviolence’
Schmidt, the state’s three-term attorney general, was an infant when King was struck down by an assassin’s bullet April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Schmidt has taken his own children on a sojourn to the motel, which has been recast as the National Civil Rights Museum. Visitors can stand in the parking lot and imagine a single rifle bullet traveling overhead and striking King as he stood outside Room 306 on an exterior balcony.
Schmidt said King met the principal challenge of his time — institutional racism that was contrary to the laws of God and laws of the United States.
“Dr. King showed us the power of an unshakable commitment to loving one another,” Schmidt said. “He held up a mirror to a nation that pledged its law to racial equality but had not conformed.”
Schmidt said King was an unashamed follower of Jesus Christ as comfortable in the pulpit on Sunday seeking to change individual souls as he was in the streets on Monday advocating for change in government policy.
Schmidt said the slain civil rights leader should be acknowledged as an “unwavering apostle of nonviolence.” It’s relevant now, he said, given how steeped in violence communities and the culture has become. Examples include street protests involving organizations such as Black Lives Matter and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol with participants linked to Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.
“I’d suspect he would criticize those that seek political change through the violence of the mob regardless of their philosophy,” Schmidt said. “Whatever the public policy question, violence is not the answer.”
Schmidt said it was shocking to accept that in 2020 the state of Kansas recorded 193 homicides, which was the most in any year since modern recordkeeping began. Victims of such savagery, he said, were male and female, young and old, urban and rural, wealthy and poor and white, Black, Asian and Hispanic.
“These victims’ families who share a common bond of profound loss, their blood all runs red and their tears all roll down no matter the color of their cheeks,” he said.
‘I wouldn’t stop there’
Marshall, who was elected in 2020 to the U.S. Senate, said Martin Luther King Jr. Day was an opportunity for self-examination in terms of King’s vision for America.
“Do we reflect the values?” Marshall said.
MLK Day almost didn’t happen. The U.S. House passed legislation creating the national holiday. President Ronald Reagan promised to sign the bill. Some in the U.S. Senate tried to hit the brakes. U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, fervently opposed the holiday. He raised questions about whether King was sufficiently significant to history for such a designation. After all, Helms said, King opposed the Vietnam War.
During a pivotal debate on the holiday in 1983, Helms submitted a 300-page file of FBI documents that purported to prove King was under the influence of communists. New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan took the binder from Helms and tossed the “packet of filth” to the Senate floor. The bill passed the Senate by a wide margin. The first observance was in 1986, but it took until 2000 before all 50 states observed it as a holiday.
Marshall said the late U.S. Sen. Bob Dole played a role in convincing his Republican colleagues to support the King holiday.
“Paying no mind to the popular opinion of his own party, Sen. Dole was instrumental in the passage of the legislation that put an end to the long, hard-fought battle for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to be adopted nationwide,” Marshall said.
On April 3, 1968, he said, King spoke at Mason Temple in Memphis. In that “Been to the Mountaintop” speech, King addressed persistent threats on his life. He said he wanted to live a long life, but was not concerned about longevity. He wanted to do God’s will.
“He’s allowed me to go up the mountain,” King said. “And, I’ve looked over. I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Marshall said he was struck by King’s repeated use of the phrase “but I wouldn’t stop there” when describing historical times and places he might visit if given a golden ticket by God. Marshall said he understood it was his job to be part of changing the nation.
“It is my pledge to you today, I’m not stopping there and neither should you,” Marshall said. “This truth makes it even more important for Dr. King’s message of hope and love to be taught and demonstrated in every aspect of our lives.”
He closed with a reference to King’s comment in a 1964 speech in St. Louis, Missouri.
“We must bridge the gaps that divide our nation by working together to find common ground. His words and values ring true when he said, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.'”
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